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Defense Focused on Forcing More Fumbles

One of the NFL's best when it came to getting to opposing quarterbacks found it "embarrassing" that it came away with so few fumble recoveries.

NASHVILLE – Hit the opposing quarterback enough and eventually the fumbles will start.

It seems like sound logic.

But that didn’t hold true in 2021 for the Tennessee Titans, who tied for ninth in the NFL with 43 sacks but forced only 10 fumbles in 17 games. They recovered just six, a total that ranked above only Philadelphia (four) and Jacksonville (two).

The troubling trend continued into the playoffs, as the Titans sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow nine times but didn’t cause a single fumble in Tennessee’s 19-16 loss.

That season-long disparity clearly stuck in the craw of outside linebackers coach Ryan Crow, who last week offered a frank assessment of his position group’s inability to create turnovers.

“It was embarrassing last year, to be honest with you,” Crow said. “Those guys did an excellent job of getting to the quarterback. But we’ve got to be able to change the game, so that will be a heavy emphasis this year. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it, spent a lot of time showing clips, and we’re absolutely spending a lot of time working on it.”

Pass-rushers aren’t the only defenders responsible for knocking footballs to the ground, of course. But not surprisingly, many of the league’s sack masters also ranked among the league leaders in forced fumbles last year.

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Some examples: The L.A. Chargers’ Joey Bosa (10.5 sacks) finished tied for second in the NFL with seven forced fumbles, followed by the likes of Arizona’s Chandler Jones (10.5 sacks, six forced fumbles); Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt (22.5 sacks, five forced fumbles); Chicago’s Trevis Gipson (seven sacks, five forced fumbles); San Francisco’s Nick Bosa (15.5 sacks, four forced fumbles); the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald (12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles); Chicago’s Robert Quinn (18.5 sacks, four forced fumbles); and Arizona’s Markus Golden (11 sacks, four forced fumbles).

The Titans simply didn’t follow suit.

Tennessee’s top four pass rushers – Harold Landry, Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons and Bud Dupree – combined for 32.5 sacks but forced just two fumbles. Landry and Dupree each recorded one while Autry and Simmons were blanked. Safety Kevin Byard recorded two forced fumbles, the only Titans player with more than one in 2021.

It was no surprise to see edge rushers prioritizing the football in individual drills during last week’s minicamp, with one outside linebacker after another making sure he sped toward the quarterback with hand outstretched for the football.

“That’s always a big emphasis for us,” Landry said. “Just working on -- at the top of the rush -- finishing, form, reaching, whatever you got to do to get the ball out. And just making it a point of emphasis at every practice so it becomes a habit. So when you get to the game, it’s just second nature to go after the ball.”

The bottom line is this: As impactful as the Titans’ pass rushers were in 2021, think how much more effective they might be in 2022 if they upgrade the forced-fumble count.

“Those guys go really hard up front,” Crow said. “They rush well together and we hope to take a step in that direction again this year. But we’ve got to be able to change the game when we get to the quarterback that many times.”